WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House could force Congress to vote on trade deals with Colombia, South Korea and Panama if congressional leaders try to stop them from coming up, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said on Monday.
“That’s always an option. It’s clearly not the preferred option,” Schwab told reporters in a conference call from Las Vegas, where she was attending the electronics industry’s annual consumer goods show. “We would rather not be in a confrontational situation,” Schwab said.
The Bush administration hopes to add to its trade legacy by winning approval of all three agreements before President George W. Bush leaves office in January 2009.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other senior Democrats — including presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards — have objected to both the South Korean and the Colombian pact.
They dislike the auto provisions of the South Korean agreement and have expressed concern about violence against trade union members in Colombia.
The Panama agreement faces problems because the head of that country’s legislature is wanted in the United States on charges of killing a U.S. soldier in 1992.
All three agreements were signed before the White House’s “fast-track” trade promotion authority expired in June 2007.
That law requires lawmakers to vote within 90 legislative days on any trade agreements that Bush sends to Congress.
However, the White House has never submitted a trade pact without first getting a signal from congressional leaders that they are prepared to vote.
Many business lobbyists fear forcing a vote would only antagonize Congress and lead to defeat of the pacts.
Schwab said she believed there was enough bipartisan support in Congress to approve all three agreements — assuming the situation in Panama can somehow be resolved.
“We are working and will continue to work with the congressional leadership — Democrats and Republicans — to arrange for the legislation to move ahead,” Schwab said.
Those conversations will intensify as lawmakers return from their holiday break this month, she said.
Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, told reporters his group had sent a letter with the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America on Monday urging Congress to approve all three free trade agreements.
Shapiro said the industry group had made free trade a major theme of this year’s consumer electronics show because of the bad rap it gets these days in Congress, on television and on the presidential campaign trail.
“For the first time in my career, I’m concerned about the future of free trade,” Shapiro said. “For the technology industry, which is pulling the economy along right now and creating high-value jobs, free trade is absolutely essential.”
Editing by Eric Walsh